This is what I really love about working in a commercial kitchen. I love it when our suppliers call us to give the inside scoop on what is really good at the markets. Today we were especially lucky - we got two calls. One from our ever reliable and seriously choosy seafood providore to tell us that scallops are coming down from Queensland and they are great. I have long since learned that when this guy says something is great, you need to listen; he is the master of understatement. The scallops were breathtaking - huge silver dollar-sized discs of sweet meat, no roe. Each weighed 80 grams easy.
Moments later we were alerted by our vegetable suppliers to some watercress that was seriously the deal. Fine - we'll have 4 bunches.
So now we just needed to decide how to deal with the bounty. In summer I would have made a totally different dish, perhaps a watercress salad with slices of kipfler potato, preserved lemon and tomatoes - topped with the seared sea scallops. It sure ain't summer here right now though, winter is starting to bite and this is when people crave soup.
The key to making this soup fabulous isn't with the amazing scallops - it is all to do with timing. The soup needs to cook slowly, then rapidly to make it sensational. Let me explain. The garlic, leeks and potatoes have heaps of flavour that is just begging to be released by slow cooking. Braise them gently in butter for a long period of time and they will get wonderfully sweet. Add the stock and simmer till the potatoes are done - this is when you need to get quick. The watercress cooks in a matter of seconds, add it and remove the pot from the heat so you retain its vibrant green colour and seductive peppery flavour.
1 bunch watercress (or use spinach)
2 desiree potatoes (500 gm or 1 lb)
3 cloves garlic
60 ml (2 fl oz) Pernod (optional - it adds a sympathetic aniseed flavour)
6 cups (1.5 litres) chicken stock
50 gm (2 oz) butter
Freshly ground black pepper
12 sea scallops (you could use prawns or leave them out entirely)
1 Tbs (30 ml) olive oil
10 ml (2 tsp) truffle oil (optional)
Pick the fronds from the watercress, discarding the coarse stems. Wash the leaves and set aside. Peel the potatoes and cut into large chunks. Remove the stem and green top from the leek and chop into smallish slices. Mince the garlic finely.
Melt the butter in a large heavy based saucepan and add the garlic and leek. Cook at a very low and gentle heat for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. It should start to smell wonderfully sweet. Add the potatoes and stir well. Cook for another 10 minutes then add the stock. Bring to the simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft - around 15 minutes. This is where it gets fast - have a food processor ready. Turn off the heat and add the watercress. Stir for a second to let it wilt, then ladle into the food processor in small batches. Remember a couple of things. Hot soup in food processors can be dangerous if you blend too much at once - it can fly everywhere. In addition, potatoes can get gluey in the food processor unless you blend them with plenty of liquid. Make sure to add plenty of stock with each ladle.
When the soup is blended, add salt and pepper to taste. Heat a fry pan or skillet to a high heat - no oil. Mix the scallops and olive oil together in a small bowl so each is well coated. Add to the hot pan and cook for 40 seconds on one side. Turn them over and cook for another 40 seconds, they should be slightly undercooked in the middle, yet warmed through. Please don't overcook them as they turn rubbery and into a serious waste of money. Ladle the soup into 4 warm bowls, top each with 3 scallops, and then drizzle over a tiny amount of truffle oil if you are using it. Truffle oil can be hugely pungent, so be sparing - it can easily overwhelm the soup. Grind over some more black pepper and serve forth with good bread.
legbagede makes a valid point: "...would it be heretical to substitute vegetable stock for the chicken?" Certainly not! In fact, if you used a well-made vegetable stock and substituted olive oil for the butter, even your vegan pals would end up happy little diners. If you cant get the gear together and make stock, use Greek stock (water) - just remember to add a touch more salt to make up for the lack of flavour.